The Nature of Music

The Necessity of Music

The Sacred

Western Christian Music

Examples of the Model in Western Christian Music

Liturgical Music
Choral Anthems

Christian faith is a holy narrative with a beginning, middle, and end bound into a meaningful whole. Regardless of whether someone stakes belief in it or not, no sensitive person could doubt the sublime magnitude of its plot: God is He Who Is, the Holy Trinity. He creates all that exists in the vast regions of cosmic space by speaking the Word: "And God said, let there be light and there was light" (Genesis 1:6). God loved our fragile planet so much in spite of its fallen condition that He gave Jesus His only begotten Son for our salvation. The Word God speaks to create the cosmos came to the earth at his Incarnation in Bethlehem: "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). At His Second Coming Christ will "judge the living and the dead," destroy death, and reign in a new order that brings the existing narrative to a meaningful end because the plot that ties it to the beginning and the middle is one simple theme: "My heart ever faithful, sing praises, be joyful, thy Jesus is near." The plot is musical.

The Nature of Music

Music has three parts, as Plato shows: rhythm, harmony and words. He argues that the first two are sovereign over the words, because, "rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the soul and most vigorously lay hold of it in bringing grace with them" (Plato [c. 339 BC] 1968).

According to Allan Bloom, "Music is the soul's primitive and primary speech or reason." Perhaps the words are subordinate to the musical tune (rhythm and harmony) because poetic language as such emerges from rhythm and harmony: "Even when articulate speech is added, it is utterly subordinate to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses ... Music, or poetry, which is what music becomes as reason emerges ... Out of the music emerge the gods that suite it, and they educate men by their example and their commandments" (Bloom 1987). This means that "the words of music seem to emerge from rhythm and harmony" (Keyes 1996b). I argue that "we can reduce them to the narrative rhythms and harmonies that are their meaning. Audible rhythm and harmony have already sprung from the source to which the words reduce" (Keyes 1999).

The unseen source of art as such, not just poetry, might be musical, because "all the fine arts narrate themselves through certain kinds of rhythm and harmony proper to each. The graphic arts have rhythmic and harmonic architectural characteristics." Philosophy is also musical because "rhythm and harmony...structure a theory into an architectonic systematic whole." Furthermore "Even the art living makes life worth living through sequence and structure" (Keyes 1999).

Nature also orders the lives of other species through instinctive rhythms and harmonies. The language of birds is music without words. And a young man tells me the tone of his girl friend's voice on the telephone always communicates more than what she actually says.

According to some physicists, the core of physical reality itself might be musical. Brian Greene writes that

Music has long since provided the metaphors of choice for those puzzling over questions of cosmic concern. From the ancient Pythagorean "music of the spheres to the "harmonies of nature" that have guided inquiry through the ages, we have collectively sought the song of nature in the gentle wanderings of celestial bodies and the riotous fulminations of subatomic particles. With the discovery of superstring theory, musical metaphors take on a startling reality, for the theory suggests that the microscopic landscape is suffused with tiny strings whose vibrational patterns orchestrate the evolution of the cosmos. (Greene 1999)

The Necessity of Music

The belief that music is a luxury is ill-founded. Both nature and elemental experience show that it is false. Music is as necessary for humankind as it is for birds. It affirms life. Ovid narrates the journey of Orpheus to hades playing his lyre and singing to rescue the soul of his wife Eurydice. Even though he found her and she followed him, he failed to bring her back. Despite the tragedy of his second loss of her, his music caused punishments to cease as long as it could be heard in the region of the damned:

As he spoke thus, accompanying his words with the music of his lyre, the bloodless spirits wept; Tantalus did not catch at the fleeting wave; Ixion's wheel stopped in wonder; the vultures did not peck at the liver [of Tityus]; the Belides rested from their urns, and thou, O Sisyphus, didst sit upon thy stone. Then ... conquered by the song, the cheeks of the Eumenides were wet with tears; nor could the queen nor he who rules the lower world refuse the supliant. They called Eurydice. (Ovid [c. 8] 1976)

Modern sources attest equally to the life-affirming power of aesthetics. Kierkegaard asks "What is a poet?" His answer is remarkably similar: "An unhappy man who in his heart harbors a deep anguish, but whose lips are so fashioned that the moans and cries which pass over them are transformed into ravishing music" (Kierkegaard [1843] 1959). Nietzsche, reflecting on the tragedies of Aeschylus out of the spirit of music, writes that "It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified" (Nietzsche [1872] 1967). How odd it is that "Nietzsche's claim about the aesthetic justification of existence ironically helps explain biblical redemption" (Keyes 1996).

The Sacred

Sacred experience is sublime and holy. The Bible calls it the "beauty of holiness." Gaulli's Triumph of the Name of Jesus illustrates this.

Pagan Longinus detects the sublime in Genesis: "'God said'--what? 'let there be light,' and there was light. 'Let there be earth,' and there was earth" (Longinus [c. 60 AD] 1965). Despite the amusing misquotation, Longinus has perhaps inadvertently identified the nature of religion as such. It is aesthetic experience recast entirely as the "weight, grandeur, and energy" of "transcendent sublimity." As I write elsewhere,

Longinus inspired a tradition of sensitivity to the sublime that extends through Kant to Rudolf Otto, who describes the "holy" as "inherently 'wholly other'" than ordinary experience. Faith exists only if it has the "awefulness" of the "mysterium tremendum" at its center. Its narrative has to be "uncanny" and overpowering in the massiveness of its plot. This gravity uplifts and does not press down. The sublime "elevates" and is "joyous," according to Longinus, just as Otto claims the mystery of the holy "captivates and transports" and can fill us with a "strange ravishment." (Keyes 1996)

Otto cites a number of biblical texts to illustrate the wholly otherness and strange ravishment of the numinous quality Holy, including Isaiah 6:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims; each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried to one another and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his Glory.

Music expresses this sense of the Holy in an extraordinarily powerful way, according to Otto: "Music stands too high for any understanding to reach, and an all-mastering efficacy goes forth from it, of which, however, no man is able to give an account. Religious worship cannot therefore do without music. It is one of the foremost means to work upon men with an effect of marvel" (Otto [1917] 1969).

Eastern Orthodox philosopher and theologian Nicolas Berdyaev thinks the gospel brings aesthetic justification. He writes that "Beauty will save the world, i.e., beauty is the salvation of the world. The transfiguration of the world is the attainment of beauty. The kingdom of God is beauty" (Berdyaev [1931] 1960). This is what I mean when I write that "religious symbols gain their validity from their aesthetic power to transfigure suffering" (Casserley 1990).

Hans Urs Von Balthasar ([1965] 1989), one of the twentieth century's most important Roman Catholic theologians, also attributes extraordinary importance to the aesthetics of the Christian faith.

Western Christian Music

A model of the beauty of holiness runs through the last 1,400 years of western Christian musical history. In spite of the fact that it has been diluted, "blended," and compromised in a variety of other ways, this model identified below has remained indestructible. It is based on the plot of the biblical revelation that begins with Creation and ends with the Second Coming of Christ.

Plots are a type of rhythm, and they have to be harmonious to be beautiful. Aristotle observes that works of art and organisms "must not only be orderly arranged but must also have a certain magnitude of their own; for beauty consists in magnitude and ordered arrangement" (Aristotle [c. 340 BC] 1965). Audible sacred music requires the same order and unity.

Primal sacred music, whether pagan or biblical, does not turn inward towards the believer's subjectivity. It elevates feelings by trying to imitate the core events that faith holds. The rhythm and harmony of hope that keeps those events do not cloy with sentimentality. The audible musical core of any religion must reflect the sublimity and unity of its narrative order.

Primal Christian music intensifies the believer's feelings because it points away from subjectivity towards robust events. Audible beauty of holiness has a two-fold model. On the one hand, it is sublime because it symbolizes God's transcendence. The tune is not just there. It has solemnity because it, not just the words, imitate God's mighty acts, not ordinary things. The rhythm and harmony are audibly sacred just as Gaulli's painting is visibly sacred. On the other hand, the tune has uncanny simplicity and epic brightness. Its plot is unified. Rhythm and harmony are not at odds with one another. The rhythm time signature has a certain predicability. Cadence leaps and sentimental uses of non-harmonic tones are absent. There is no arbitrariness. Beginning, middle, and end are internally connected. This is also true of the words and their relation to the tune. The music that springs from the beauty of holiness cuts across conventional distinctions. It can be either plain or elaborate, unlearned or learned, familiar or unfamiliar because it thrives on both sides of all those supposed differences.

Examples of the Model in Western Christian Music

The following selections are from the relatively small number of sound files already in (or now being produced for) this web site by the parishes and congregations it lists. Other selections will be added as the number of listings and sound files increases.

Liturgical Music


Kyrie, Mass IX, “Cum Jubilo”
Kyrie, Missa Super Dixit Maria, Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612)
Kyrie, Missa Gregoriana, Hermann Schroeder (1904-84)



Adjuva Me Domine, Jean Conseil [Consilium] (1498-1535)
Dixit Maria, Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) Psalmody


Psalm 72 (plainsong)

Choral Anthems

Quem Pastores Laudavere, M. Praetorius (1571-1621)


Five Centuries of Congregational Hymns

Ein feste Burg – Martin Luther (1483-1546), harmonized by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Words: “A mighty fortress is our God.”
St. Anne – William Croft (1678-1727), altered and harmonized by William Henry Monk (1823-1889). Words: “O God, our help in ages past.”
Wachet auf – Hans Sachs (1494-1575), adapted by Philip Nicolai (1556-1608), arranged and harmonized by by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Words: “‘Sleepers, wake!’ A voice astounds us.”
Hyfrydol – Rowland Hugh Pritchard (1811-1887). Words: “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!”
Sine Nomine – Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Words: “For all the saints.”
St. Columba – Irish melody. Words: “The King of love my shepherd is.”


Johann Sebastian Bach Organ Selections

Prelude in E Flat, BWV (Clavieruebung, III)
Fugue in E Flat, BWV (Clavieruebung III)
Fugue in G Minor ("Little"), BWV 578


Sacred Music America Home Page


St. Cecilia as patron saint of music
(Click the image for a larger view)


Sacred Music America does not guarantee that all the music of every service at the parishes and congregations listed is consistent with its standards. If you plan to visit any of them, call ahead of time to ask details about the program for the specific liturgy you expect to attend.

A great many parishes and congregations maintain high standards across the country. The Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed sections offer a few examples worthy of attention at this time. Others will be added to the listings, which we plan to expand and enlarge.